A Review of Leah Angstman’s Shoot the Horses First
By Alex Carrigan
In her new short story collection Shoot the Horses First, Leah Angstman compiles sixteen stories set across America’s past, primarily by exploring the lives of putatively unexceptional figures in the 19th century. Angstman’s tales transcend time and place to present stories to which readers today can relate as she addresses matters like mental health, sexism, crime, and fidelity in various historical settings. The stories cover a wide range of genres and tones, but all are connected by capturing the struggles individuals throughout history face in order to achieve some goal, such as an education or a romantic liaison. But greater than that, it’s about people striving to overcome abusers in power and assert their own autonomy against forces that try to keep them down.
The stories in Shoot the Horses First span from small anecdotes to what feel like excerpts from larger historical records. For example, the story “Yellow Flowers” follows a young black girl during the yellow fever outbreak of 1793 in Philadelphia, a time in which black people were sent to the city to deal with the sick due to the misbelief that they were immune to the disease. While the story itself may be fictional, it’s placement in a historical event people may not know shows the medical exploitation of black people that has permeated throughout American history, which would be followed by cases like the Tuskegee syphilis experiments or the usage of the immortal cells of Henrietta Lacks..
Alternatively, questions of quarantine and concern for health can be seen again in the much more uplifting and longer piece “The Light Ages; or Holes in the Heart,” where a young university student becomes transfixed by a young woman kept isolated from society by her family because she was born with a hole in her heart. These are two completely different settings and scenarios, but Angstman uses both stories to resonate with the reader more since the COVID-19 pandemic has given everyone personal experience in quarantine and social isolation.
Many of the stories in the collection do draw parallels with one another based on the themes and ways these matters are addressed. The story “Casting Grand Titans” perfectly illustrates one woman’s challenges in being recognized as a botanist as she deals with rampant sexism and institutional discrimination for women in her era. She’s even barred from putting her name to a journal article she wrote detailing a groundbreaking discovery due to the “issues” of having a woman’s name on a scientific paper. Institutional power and abuse is also depicted in “In the Blood,” in which a researcher abuses their authority to advance their own selfish ends in the guise of disinterested experimentation and scientific progress.
Questions of race and gender also arise in “A Lifetime of Fishes,” a story about a white woman who ends up rescued by a Wampanoag man following a shipwreck. She then faces the choice of returning to her original community or assimilating into his tribe. In this story, the protagonist, Grace, deals with the loss of a leg and the ramifications that has in both societies, where returning home means she could lose her engagement and livelihood, but remaining on the island means there’s someone who wants to share a life with her and will provide not only food and shelter, but could give her the chance to work with the tribe. This story and “Casting Grand Titans” present an intelligent, resourceful woman limited by the societal discriminations, but who nonetheless manifests autonomy and agency in the face of entrenched patriarchy.
Other pieces in Angstman’s collection show a similar strength of character and continued resistance to controlling figures. These include stories like “In Name Only,” where a woman defies her abusive uncle in an attempt to rescue a boy he has kidnapped, as well as “A Cleaning to the Stovepipe,” where a French servant finally asserts herself against the noble who has continually demeaned and insulted her when she is finally put in a position of power over him. The collection ends with “Music Knows No Color,” a story written about Joseph Douglass, grandson of Frederick Douglass, a renowned violinist performing at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair as a defiance towards the racist society that couldn’t believe a black man like him could become a music legend.
Shoot the Horses First is a collection of powerfully imagined and richly detailed historical fiction that points us toward the realities of oppression and resistance in our all-too-real world. Angstman’s descriptive prose reveals how many of the same issues of history continue to emerge, but are always met with a response from those who are willing to assert their individualism and inner strength. By asking us to look into a fictionalized past, Angstman inevitably evokes comparisons with the myriad flashpoints of conflict and the modes of liberation all around us today. Reading this collection helps us see where we’ve been as a society and how much remains to be done to create a humane and humanizing world.
Alex Carrigan (he/him) is a Pushcart-nominated editor, poet, and critic from Virginia. He is the author of May All Our Pain Be Champagne: A Collection of Real Housewives Twitter Poetry (Alien Buddha Press, 2022), and Now Let’s Get Brunch: A Collection of RuPaul’s Drag Race Twitter Poetry (Querencia Press, forthcoming 2023). He has had fiction, poetry, and literary reviews published in Quail Bell Magazine, Lambda Literary Review, Barrelhouse, Sage Cigarettes (Best of the Net Nominee, 2023), Stories About Penises (Guts Publishing, 2019), and more. For more information, visit carriganak.wordpress.com or follow him on Twitter @carriganak.